Wolf Announces Replacement Of Port Authority Board Member Involved In Mysterious Political Committee

Apr 11, 2019

Robert Kania, a Port Authority of Allegheny County board member and Republican donor, is registering Americans Against Socialism with state election officials – four months after 90.5 WESA first reported on the group’s failure to disclose its activities, and within a day of a Washington D.C. activist group’s call for an investigation of the matter.

Despite the move, Gov. Tom Wolf removed him from the transit agency's board Thursday afternoon.

*This story has been UPDATED at 3:07 p.m. to reflect that Gov. Tom Wolf has removed Robert Kania from the Port Authority board

"Governor Wolf has removed Mr. Kania from the board," said a statement from J.J. Abbott, a Wolf spokesman. "We  have been engaging stakeholders and legislators regarding potential appointees and that process continues in hopes of finding consensus. In the interim, Governor Wolf is appointing Jessica Walls-Lavelle, the governor's Southwestern Regional Director, to the board. Governor Wolf has full confidence that she will be a strong advocate for building and maintaining the transit network in Allegheny County." 

Wolf's announcement came just hours after a coalition of community activists publicly called for Kania’s replacement on the board, citing a need for board diversity and concerns about his political activities.

As WESA first reported last year, Americans Against Socialism conducted a last-ditch effort to head off the election of state Rep. Sara Innamorato. AAS used lawn signs and a website to urge voters to support state Rep. Dom Costa.

Costa sat on the Port Authority board with Kania, and had been defeated by Innamorato in the Democratic primary that spring. But Americans Against Socialism had not filed a registration statement or financial-disclosures concerning its donors or expenditures, as required by state law.

It did so this week, shortly after Washington D.C.-based Campaign for Accountability called on county elections officials to investigate, citing WESA's reporting.

Kania has not responded to WESA’s requests for comment. But his attorney, Zach Wallen, cited clerical issues for Kania's previous failure to file. "My understanding is that originally Rob was listed as both chariman and treasurer and that's not permitted under campaign-finance rules, so it got kicked back for that reason." 

A spokeswoman for the Department of State, however, said that department staff had no record nor recollection of any filing or interaction involving Americans Against Socialism prior to this week.

A copy of the statement provided to WESA indicates that Kania is the group’s treasurer, who would be responsible for filing financial information. The committee chairperson is identified as Scott Zimmerman, an electrical contractor in the South Hills. Kania, who filed the statement, dated it Oct. 23 of last year. It indicates that the committee could be active for races at any level, for an indefinite period.

 

No financial information was submitted: The committee needs to be registered and assigned an identification number before those disclosures can be filed.  Wallen said that once it obtained such a number, "we can start submitting campaign reports and intend to submit it very quickly." 

But by Thursday morning, more than a dozen progressive organizations in the Pittsburgh area called on Gov. Tom Wolf to replace Kania on the Port Authority board.  They cited both WESA’s reporting and a need for greater board diversity.

An open letter circulated by Pittsburghers for Public Transit noted that Kania was serving on an expired term of the Port Authority’s 11-member board. He was appointed by former Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, to a four-year term in 2013.

Thursday afternoon, the activists hailed Wolf's decision. In a statement, Pittsburghers for Public Transit Executive Director Laura Wiens said, “While we appreciate that Governor Wolf has heeded transit riders’ call in removing Kania from the board, we have yet to hear from his office. Transit riders and transit workers are key stakeholders in this vital public asset and must have a say in the appointment process.”

The open letter was signed by a number of environmental and community activists, as well as Beechview leaders including City Council District 4 representative Anthony Coghill. It suggested as a replacement Heather McClain, the community initiatives manager for bike-share operation Healthy Ride.

The activists praised McClain’s work with other groups and her role in seeking to “amplify people’s voices around mobility and access, especially marginalized groups.” And it notes she’s a resident of Beechview, which relies heavily on the Port Authority’s light-rail service. (Disclosure: McClain also worked at WESA as a producer from 2012 to 2015.)

In December, Wolf's office told WESA that Kania remained on the board “as candidates are evaluated for the full term.”

Wallen, the attorney, did not respond to a request for comment after Kania's removal from the Port Authority board was announced. 

Dom Costa himself, who served on the Port Authority as the representative for House Democrats, was replaced last month. House minority leader Frank Dermody named state Rep. Austin Davis in his place.